Chonos

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  • Environment and Geography

    The Chonos occupied the islands of Western Patagonia from latitude 43°–48° South. This region includes the Chiloé and “Chono” archipelagos up to the Taitao Peninsula and Penas Gulf. These archipelagos were formed from the peaks of the submerged Coastal Mountain Range and are a veritable labyrinth of islands, canals and fiords. The 1,047 islands are covered in dense rainforest that makes travel on land difficult, and there are few beaches for landing watercraft. The zone is characterized by consistently high rainfall of more than 2000 mm per year and average temperatures of 7°–9º C (45-48°F).

  • Economy

    The Chonos belonged to the southern canoeist culture and were nomadic seafarers. Their vessels, called dalcas, were central to their way of life and were made of three planks that were bent with fire then formed into a boat shape, with two side planks fitted alongside a longer central plank to form a long, narrow canoe. The planks were sewn together with twisted string made of crushed bark from the bamboo-like culeu plant. The joints were caulked with leaves from the fiaca or mepoa tree and the vessel was them covered with maque bark. Their anchors were made of stone and wood. A dalca could hold loads up to 200 quintal (1 quintal= 100 kgs) and up to 10 crew members, most of them rowers. Sails were used on the boats when the wind was favorable. Early chroniclers and writers mentioned these vessels, admiring their design and the prowess of their crews.

    The Chonos divided tasks by sex, with the men being responsible for fishing and for hunting sea lions, which were valued not only for their meat but also for their fat and oil, from which the Chonos made a special beverage. The men also were responsible for building the group’s huts on land. The younger males hunted birds at night, blinding them in their nests until they fell into the canoes, where they were knocked senseless. Chono women collected shellfish, both by hand from the seaside rocks and by diving in the ocean. Women divers began their training early, as young as 3 or 4 years old. They collected shellfish in a basket as they swam, holding the handles in their mouths or around their necks. The women also collected seaweed, fungi, eggs and firewood. In the Guaitecas region, the Chonos grew corn (which they used to make a fermented beverage), potatoes and barley, and raised “wooly dogs” (probably guanacos), whose hair they used to make their clothing.

    The Chonos were also known to have used dogs to help obtain food: some were specially trained to dive for fish and chase them into nets held by two women. When a whale beached along the coast, the Chonos made use of the meat, skin and baleen. They also manufactured spears, clubs and daggers from bone, axes and knives from stone, hooks from wood and nets from the fiber of a tree they called quantu, the same fiber they used to make blankets and baskets. Historical records mention the occasional use of bows and arrows.

  • Art

    Like many tribes in the south of Chile, the Chonos painted their bodies: They painted their faces red, white and/or black, but used only white paint on their bodies. In regard to their clothing, chroniclers have written of the woolen or plant fiber tunics with which the Chonos covered their bodies; their leather or woolen capes (the latter possibly made from guanaco hair) that covered their backs and shoulders; and loincloths made from dried seaweed. Sources also mention that the women wore skirts of bird feathers tied around their waists.

  • Social Organization

    The family was the Chono’s basic social unit within this monogamous and patriarchal culture. The men had great authority over the women. The extended family gathered at coastal camps. Historical accounts mention chiefs or caciques, as elders of the group.

  • Beliefs and Funeral Rites

    Little is known about the Chnoos’ cosmovision. Their beliefs are thought to be similar to those of the Huilliche people of Chiloé Island. Regarding rituals, there are references to dances that were performed after the extraction of sea lion oil. Byron also describes a ceremony in which the men groaned and sang until reaching a trance-like state that allowed them to burn themselves with embers from the fire or cut themselves with sharpened seashells. The women followed suit afterwards.

    The same author also mentions a possible superstition in which the Chonos avoided throwing seashells into the sea. For example, when they consumed shellfish in the canoe, the shells were collected in the middle of the vessel and dumped onshore later.

    The people laid their dead to rest in caves or rocky alcoves, in the fetal position, covered with red paint and wrapped in cypress bark. Some early travelers described the interment of more than six individuals in the same cave, laid out on platforms of criss-crossed trunks. These bodies were naturally mummified by the cold and dryness of the cave.

  • Settlement Pattern

    As seafaring nomads, the Chonos moved around from island to island without having a home base. They spent most of their lives on board their dalcas, moving the entire family around to where resources were most plentiful and taking all of their belongings with them. The vessels were even dismantled and dragged over land when required.

    They erected dwellings in the shape of a flattened cone at their temporary camps. These elliptical shaped structures consisted of a series of long, straight branches set into the ground and leaning inward. The branches were tied together at the apex with plant fibers. The Chonos covered the floor of their dwellings with dry branches to keep out the cold, while the structure itself was covered with leaves, skins and bark to keep out the wind. As covering materials were not easily obtained, the people took them along in the dalca when they moved.

    The huts had a single, small entrance, and their size depended on the number of people they housed. The hearth was in the middle to provide heat for warmth and for cooking. The huts had no smoke holes, which made them uncomfortable to live in. When a Chono group left a camp, they left the frame in place for future occupants. These temporary camps seem to have been located close to one or more key resources, such as freshwater, and the Chonos used them as a base from which they hunted and gathered other resources. Middens have been found at these camp sites due to their frequent consumption of shellfish. Some of these piles of waste shells are up to 100m wide and four meters deep.

  • History

    Little information is available about the Chono people. It is not even known whether they were a single indigenous group or several. Early writers, sailors and missionaries referred to them and left short descriptions of their lifestyle and the vessels they used to navigate the coastal waters. The Chonos are thought to have interacted with the Huilliche people of Chiloé and the Kawashkar further south; some authors have suggested that the Chonos were actually a branch of the latter. The first recorded contact between the Chonos and the Spanish occurred in 1553. In 1557-1558 they were observed and described members of the expedition commanded by Juan Ladrillero and Francisco Cortés Ojeda. Their population was estimated at around 1700, more than a few of which were enslaved to work in the mines of the north by the Spanish expeditions that sailed by their coastal settlements. This led the Chonos to avoid the more traveled coastal sea routes. Some moved further south into Kawashkar territory, while others found refuge in the Jesuit missions of Chiloé, where a few are said to have been baptized in 1608.

    After he was shipwrecked in the Guaitecas islands in 1741, the English sailor John Byron wrote about the Chonos he encountered and eventually lived with there. The last mention of the Chono people was in 1805; after this date, there are not referred to again.

  • Language

    It is not known what language the Chono people spoke. Some experts doubt that they had their own tongue, while others think that they spoke the same language as the Huilliche of Chiloé, and still others associate them with the languages of Tierra del Fuego. At any rate, only a few place names in the Chiloe archipelago have been attributed to the Chono, including those ending with –ec (ek) and –ac (ak). Examples of these include Laitec, Chaulinec, Quenac, Cahuac, Isquiliac, costas de Ichuac and Auchac, among a few others.

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